A Questionable Schema

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2012

Here’s a charming group of second graders singing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

The words are a little difficult to understand, which might indicate the kids themselves aren’t entirely clear on the lyrics.  But the ditty seems to be a reading strategies lesson, reminding the kids to “check my schema” when they read to ensure comprehension.

“Think about all the things I know about the text before I read.
Building schema really helps me comprehend the words I read.
While I’m reading, I keep thinking ‘Does what I read make sense to me?’
If it doesn’t I check my schema, then I re-read carefully.

“Building schema, building schema
I do it every time I read.
Because it gives me background knowledge
For the next books that I read”

I don’t wish to be overly critical of an earnest attempt to make kids better readers.  But does it really help second graders’ comprehension to toss around (let alone sing about) terms like “building schema?”   I’m skeptical.  The word itself is more jargon than vocabulary.  Call it the Lipnicki Effect.  It’s cute, funny and sometimes impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching kids to activate their background knowledge when they read? Or actually building background knowledge?

Sorry, I meant schema.


A Visit to the Core Knowledge Auto Body Shop

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2012

The New York Times offers up a piece about a New York City school that has put building background knowledge at the heart of its curriculum.  P.S. 142, a school in lower Manhattan hard by the Williamsburg Bridge “has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons,” the paper notes, “in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”

“Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. ‘I’ve been inside a bus,’ Tyler said. ‘Does that count?’”

This is not a Core Knowledge school, but the teachers and staff clearly understand the critical connection between background knowledge, vocabulary and language proficiency.  The Times describes the school’s “field trips to the sidewalk,” with children routinely visiting parking garages and auto body shops, or examining features of every day life.

“In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.

The “no standing” example illustrates perfectly how easily a lack of shared references and experiences conspire to thwart comprehension.  It is simply inconceivable that a non-driver would connect the act of balancing on two feet with the act of idling by the curb in a car.  Our language is deeply idiomatic and context driven.  Even a simple word like “shot” means something different on a basketball court, a doctor’s office, or when the repairman says your dishwasher is “shot.”

Obvious?  Sure it is.  To you. But you’re not a low-income kid who has never sat in a car.  Or stood in one.  These things either need to be taught explicitly or experienced first-hand.

“Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge,” the Times notes.  It’s gratifying to see this point rendered as if it’s widely known in our schools.   Still the piece ends on a bittersweet note.  A local superintendent says he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they’re fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” Daniel Feigelson said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”

The long view should win out simply because there is no short view. At least not one that has been proven effective. Language growth is a slow growing plant, E.D. Hirsch points out.  There is no shortcut to building the vocabulary and background knowledge that drives comprehension. All the reading strategies instruction in the world can’t compensate.

Here’s my suggestion:  Although I love the phrase, PS 142 should immediately stop calling these activities “field trips to the sidewalk.”

Call it “test prep.”  Because that’s what it really is.

Our Love/Hate Relationship With “Mere Facts”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2011

The Daily Beast serves up that hardiest perennial of “tsk, tsk” journalism: a poll highlighting our collective lack of history and civic knowledge.   The U.S. citizenship test is comprised of 100 questions about American government, systems of government, rights and responsibilities, American history and civics, notes the Beast.  “Ten questions from the 100 are chosen randomly for the test-taker.  To pass, one must get at least six right.”  About four in ten Americans can’t clear the bar we set for would-be naturalized citizens.

Tsk, tsk. 

The essential conundrum.  We in education blithely dismiss background knowledge as trivia and “mere facts,” but we (and more importantly, the broader world) continue to judge harshly those not in possession of facts we take for granted.  Take the test yourself.  The questions are of the kind every school child used to know back when school kids used to know things.  And to be fair, some of the questions are trivia.  The ability to name the authors of the Federalist Papers, for example, is probably not as important as understanding something about the role of the papers in the ratification of the Constitution.  But the unspoken question to ask yourself is whether it would impact your opinion about a friend, neighbor or colleague if they couldn’t answer the questions.

Perhaps we should change the immigration test to a DBQ format.  Or perhaps insist on naturalization by portfolio assessment. 

(H/T Joanne Jacobs)

The Best Argument Arts Educators Are Not Making

by Robert Pondiscio
April 13th, 2010

In a speech last week at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, Education Secretary Arne Duncan took up the cause of arts education and argued forcefully against curriculum narrowing.  Even in the face of budget cuts facing school districts, Duncan said, “now is the time to rethink and strengthen arts education.”

“And I ask you to help build the national case for the importance of a well-rounded curriculum–not just in the arts but in the humanities writ large. The question of what constitutes an educated person has been taken up by the great thinkers in every society. Yet few of those leading lights have concluded that a well-educated person need only learn math, science, and read in their native tongue.”

It’s always heartening to hear high-powered support for a well-rounded curriculum.  But I wonder if the Secretary–and arts educators, too – aren’t overlooking the most potent weapon in their arsenal for why the arts matter in our performance and data-driven age.  Arts education has a crucial and underappreciated role to play in boosting reading achievementespecially among our most disadvantaged students who tend to have less out-of-school exposure to the arts than their more privileged peers.

As Dan Willingham, E.D. Hirsch and others never tire of pointing out, “teaching content is teaching reading.”  There is a mountain of evidence that the ability to comprehend is largely a function of a student’s prior knowledge across all content disciplines.  Schools that narrow curriculum, forsaking the arts to devote more time to reading instruction are making a critical, self-defeating mistake.  As Willingham put it in his Washington Post blog last week, “Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores.”

The Secretary could be enormously helpful by talking about this in speeches like the one he made last week.  And arts educators would do well to familiarize themselves with what the research says to rebut those who think arts education is “nice to have” but nonessential.  The arts, like science, history, geography and other content disciplines, are a critical part of the background knowledge kids need to accumulate to become good readers and writers.  The Secretary hinted at this point in his remarks last week, but never hit it head on, listing three reasons why arts education matters:

“The arts significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from college. Second, arts education is essential to stimulating the creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a global economy. And last, but not least, the arts are valuable for their own sake, and they empower students to create and appreciate aesthetic works.

The Secretary gets that arts education is important, and that’s great.  But there’s an even stronger, more practical case to be made than the one he made last week: Arts education is critical to reading achievement.  Teaching content is teaching reading.  Reducing art and music will hurt, not help, test scores. 

If I were an art or music teacher I would make sure my administrators understood my importance clearly.  “I’m not just an art teacher,” I would argue.  “I’m also a reading teacher.”

What Works is Boring

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2009

Important, but frustrating piece in the Washington Post this morning about the difficulty of sustaining test-score growth in underperforming schools after dramatic one-time boosts.  “Studies across the country show that many low-performing schools falter after big one-year gains in test scores.  Of the seven D.C. public schools that increased proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more in both reading and math in 2008,” Bill Turque reports, only showed growth in 2009.  “Most of the schools that surged 20 points or more in a single category last year also had difficulty building on the increase this year.”

The piece looks at any number of reasons–from turnover to cheating–why scores might spike in a given year and then plateau or decline.  But if the piece is any indication, DC schools are overlooking the obvious: a key to long-term growth in reading scores is the steady buildup of background knowledge.  Without knowing anything about the particular schools discussed in the Post piece, I’d bet real money that we’re talking about mediocre schools that got religion (or were forced to get religion) about testing and focused on it.  Hard.  But no one should be surprised to see one-time gains.

“Given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement,” wrote Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. ”If not addressed by schools, academic background knowledge can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.”

E.D. Hirsch has obviously spent much of his life banging on this same drum, pointing over and over that reading tests are essentially tests of background knowledge.  If DC school leaders understand this, the Post piece doesn’t say. 

Test prep and simplistic reading strategy instruction that focus on trivial stories–students learn to predict, to summarize, to infer — does nearly nothing to add to a child’s store of knowledge, making an such a one-time boost nearly inevitable.   An absence of background knowledge is the difference-maker and left unattended it eventually shows up in the test scores. 

At a recent Aspen Institute panel discussion with Hirsch, Randi Weingarten observed that the reason we’re not seeing more of this is because “what works is boring.”  Building background knowledge is a slow, steady process.  Boring as hell.  And absolutely effective. 

Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

Dan Willingham reviews the draft voluntary national standards in reading and sees a problem:  ”Teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them,” he notes.  “But reading comprehension is not a ‘skill’ that can be taught directly.”

His latest blog post at the Washington Post’s education page observes that teachers tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. “Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” he writes. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

Policymakers need to pay attention here because this is what those of us who complain about curriculum narrowing are complaining about: the natural impulse to focus on pure reading instruction in an attempt to boost reading scores is self-defeating.  When you see, as Dan does, how “bad readers” look like good readers when they have background knowledge to bring to bear on a topic, the reasonable goal of education becomes increasing the number of topics children know something about.  It may sound smart, even heroic, to focus like a laser on reading instruction, but ultimately the law of diminishing returns kicks in.  You build comprehension by building background knowledge in the reader–not by endless practice in determining the author’s purpose, finding the main idea and making inferences. 

The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things–and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it….Can’t you teach kids how to reason about texts, and thereby wring the meaning out of it even if they don’t have the right prior knowledge?  To some extent, but it doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect. For one thing, this sort of reasoning is difficult mental work. For another, it’s slow, and so it breaks up the flow of the story you’re reading, and the fun of the story is lost.

And Dan has a line in his post that I wish could be on the wall of every classroom in the country:  “Hoping that students without relevant prior knowledge will reason their way through a story is a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

Ultimately the draft national standards do not serve us well by reinforcing the idea that reading a a skill.  It’s not, Willingham notes:

The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.

A request–no a plea, really:  Forward Dan’s post to every teacher you know.  Tweet it.  Blog it. Put it on your Facebook page.  Do it now.   We’re not going to solve this problem until or unless we see this for what it is.  Here’s the link: Reading Is Not a Skill.  Pass the word.  And while you’re at it, here’s Dan’s video, Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading


Health Care and Background Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
September 17th, 2009

Understanding the health care debate requires basic literacy and math skills.  But Checker Finn writing at National Review Online, is struck by “the enormous amount of background knowledge” required to make sense of it.  “It’s almost a litmus test of cultural literacy,” he writes.  To illustrate his point, he looks at a few paragraphs of President Obama’s recent address to Congress last week in which the President took for granted that his audience was familiar with words and phrases like “comprehensive health care reform,” “Democrats and Republicans” “self-insurance,” “coverage,” and ”bankruptcy” among other terms.

What’s an “advanced democracy”? How many are there? What are some others? What’s the point of Obama’s comparison of the U.S. with other countries?  What are Medicare and Medicaid? Where did they come from? How do they work? Who is covered by them? What’s the federal deficit, and why are some people concerned about its size? What is the congressional legislative process, and why is it unusually complex in this instance?

“Perhaps you don’t need to know these sorts of things to succeed in college or the workplace (which seems to be the litmus test for today’s standards-writers and education reformers). But you really do need to know them to be a constructive participant in modern American life,” Finn concludes.  “Who is going to ensure that our schools teach them?”

Reading Strategies and Cargo Cult Science

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

The idea that it’s enough to simply ”find what works, adopt it, and spread it around,” notes scientist/blogger Allison over at Kitchen Table Math is an example of what physicist Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science“:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

“Cargo Cult education seems to be all the rage in lots of communities,” Allison notes.  “Sure, districts could just start grabbing lessons from high performing schools but that won’t make the students suddenly read or write.  Unless they understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’ then it won’t matter.”

I had never heard this Feyman anecdote but I may have to start calling our reliance on “reading strategies” instruction “Cargo Cult Reading.”  Its entire point  is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers.  It’s the exactly the same thing–you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension–but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible.  Indeed, a staple of strategy instruction is to teach children that good readers ”activate their prior knowledge to create mental images, ask questions, and make inferences.”  How exactly does that work in the absence of prior knowledge to activate? 

One of the things that more advantaged students typically bring to school is a lifetime of background knowledge (or “schema” as reading strategy enthusiasts prefer to call it) that makes comprehension possible.  Without it you’re sitting in the jungle waiting for the planes to land.

It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Problem

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2009

Mark Bauerlein has a piece on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm blog that should give pause to those whose definition of achievement in public education starts and stops with reading and math scores. 

Bauerlein spins a fictional tale of a top Emory University law school student interviewing at one of the leading law firms in Atlanta.  Over lunch with the senior partners, the conversation turns toward the older gentlemen’s memories of the Cold War. “It’s not a test, and it’s not planned,” Bauerlein notes.  ”For them, the Cold War is simply one of those realities that any intelligent person is familiar with and has some opinions about.”  But the overachieving young man has nothing to add and is conspicuously out of his depth.   

The others have the tact to move on, but they note the deficiency. It doesn’t cost the young man the job, but the senior fellows make a judgment. This guy, they think, is sharp and hard-working, but get out of his training and he doesn’t bring much to the table. The deeper awareness that makes for a sober judgment and wider perspective is missing…This is the professional value of cultural literacy. It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize. The measure is informal, yes, but it makes a difference in how peers and superiors regard you.

Bauerlein’s piece reminded me of a conversation I had with an unusually bright student a few years ago.  She blew away every math and reading test she’d ever taken, but her walking around knowledge of even basic history, geography and current events was virtually nonexistent (Granted, she was a 5th grader, but she was under the impression that New Jersey was a country).  Discussing the gaps in her education, I told her, “This is not your fault, but it is your problem.”  Indeed, this young lady had done absolutely everything asked of her in school.  Her lack of breadth was not something she chose, but something we had allowed to happen to her.   If the gaps in her knowledge persist into adulthood, I knew, the world would certainly judge her skeptically, even harshly, for precisely the reasons Bauerlein describes–especially as a person of color from the South Bronx. 

Crucially, this was a kid with top scores on standardized tests–one of my school’s rare ”double 4s” in both math and reading.  By that measure–but only by that measure–a screaming success story of public education.  But what the data doesn’t show, and Baurlein’s piece reminds us, is that out in the real world there are very different metrics at work.  There’s too often far less to our current definition of success than meets the eye.

Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

A little over a year ago, I saw Dan Willingham give a talk at the Education Trust conference in Washington, DC titled “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.” He demonstrated convincingly why background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension–and why broad, content-rich education is the best way to ensure kids can understand what they read.  Having been force-fed the idea that all kids needed is the ability to decode, vocabulary and “reading strategies” in order to comprehend, I thought – I still do — the phrase “teaching content is teaching reading” ought to be on the lips of every elementary educator in America.  

Dan has made an intriguing video on the main ideas of his presentation and posted it on YouTube. It’s terrific. 

Great work, Dr. Willingham.  If you know an elementary school teacher, forward the link to Dan’s video.